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Panel OKs Historic Status for Cinerama Dome’s Exterior

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A city preservation board gave landmark protection Wednesday to the exterior of the Hollywood Cinerama Dome--a one-of-its-kind movie theater--but in a blow to film buffs, it refused to include the interior in the designation.

The fight over the future of the concrete dome has in some respects turned into a quintessential Los Angeles battle. Probably in no other city in the country would so much passion and emotion be expended on efforts to keep the inside of a 35-year-old movie theater intact.

Film lovers and members of the entertainment industry have flooded city offices with letters protesting plans to gut the dome’s interior and update it with a new movie screen and stadium seating.

Middle-aged men have recounted in great detail their first trip to the dome as children, how its huge curved screen awed them and how they have returned again and again over the years like pilgrims to a shrine.

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But their pleas were not enough to persuade the city Cultural Heritage Commission to defy the wishes of the dome’s owner, Pacific Theatres, which did not object to naming the exterior a landmark but insisted it has to renovate the interior to remain competitive and accommodate today’s film technology.

“We can’t and should not be able to compel the owner to support a building at their expense that is a money loser,” Commissioner Thomas Hunter Russell said shortly before making the unanimously approved motion to name the dome’s exterior and marquee a city historic-cultural monument.

He nonetheless expressed reservations about the proposed changes.

“I’m not sure that I’ll ever go in the dome theater again if they make the changes,” Russell said of the interior renovation plans.

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“This will be like 500 other theaters in Los Angeles once you do what you’re going to do with it inside, I suspect,” he told Pacific representatives. “But you can’t continue to keep it if you can’t make money on it. None of us likes to compromise, but we’re going to have to compromise.”

The commission action does not settle the matter. The landmark vote must be confirmed by the City Council. And preservationists have vowed to press their arguments before the Community Redevelopment Agency, which is negotiating with Pacific over the company’s request for a multimillion-dollar city subsidy for a large retail-entertainment complex it wants to build on vacant land next to the dome on Sunset Boulevard.

The 937-seat theater has attracted the movie faithful since it opened in 1963. It was to be the first of hundreds of such domed movie houses constructed around the country to showcase the wide-screen Cinerama process. But Cinerama was soon displaced by other formats, and the dome construction proved too expensive to become a theater trend.

The dome remains the only example of its kind, offering what fans consider a wonderfully unique moviegoing experience.

Pacific, which built the dome and has owned the adjacent land for decades, argues that the theater’s outdated technology is hurting business and prompting some movie makers to keep their films out of the dome.

Pacific Chairman Michael Forman, who was involved in the dome’s construction, said Wednesday that when it was built, the dome “was to be a state-of-the-art theater. Today it no longer is.”

He told commissioners that his family loved the dome--his father’s memorial service was held there--but professed some amusement at the degree to which every part of the dome, down to a perimeter concrete block wall thrown up in the last days of construction--is now considered untouchable by some.

To counter the preservation campaign, Pacific offered letters from the likes of Steven Spielberg and the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in which they express support for a new screen and seating. The theater company also presented a petition signed by 1,500 dome patrons backing Pacific’s redevelopment plans .

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Dome lovers contend that existing sound and image distortion problems could be easily fixed without ripping apart the interior. They also dispute Pacific’s arguments that the theater can’t make it economically if left unchanged and point to the fact that when “Godzilla” was shown in May, the Cinerama Dome got more phone calls about show times than any other screen in the country, according to an industry ranking.

Pacific’s initial plans for the adjacent retail complex also elicited preservationists’ complaints that the new buildings would overwhelm the dome. The company has modified the design to answer at least some of those objections, and indications are that discussions will continue about the interior.

“We very much want to work out a solution that gets Pacific the revitalization project that they and Hollywood deserve and preserves some semblance of the fabric of this great building,” said Kenneth Bernstein of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a local preservation group.

In other actions, the heritage commission named as local landmarks the four-story binoculars sculpture designed by Claes Oldenburg for a Frank Gehry building at 340 S. Main St. in Venice, as well as the 1924 Los Feliz Heights steps.


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